8 ways to improve diversity in STEM

Lead author Andrew G. Campbell says he was struck that students harbored some of the concerns—including a need for work-life balance or career path advice—so early in their academic careers. (Credit: iStockphoto)

If the effort to get more underrepresented minority students in STEM fields is like a chemistry experiment, a new study suggests that the formula isn’t yet complete.

“I don’t necessarily want to say that we’ve been doing it wrong all along, it’s just that there are other ideas we can bring in,” says lead author Andrew G. Campbell, a biology professor at Brown University who develops and studies programs to recruit and retain underrepresented minority (URM) students to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).


Specifically what’s been missing, Campbell says, has been the unfettered input of URM students. To begin to remedy that, he and his coauthors elicited the views of 50 URM students at a weekend retreat in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, that they organized earlier this year.

“We didn’t just sit down and design a survey and say, ‘This is a good question to ask’,” Campbell says. Surveys run the risk of bearing the biases of those who design them. Open-ended peer dialogue, the authors reasoned, would be more authentic.

Given that wide latitude, the students identified eight major themes that they say would improve their STEM training and career pursuits.

The students—mostly undergraduates, but ranging up to postdocs—came from Brown, Harvard University, Morgan State University, Northeastern University, Tufts University, the University of Massachusetts–Boston, Cornell University, the University at Buffalo, LaGuardia Community College, Pine Manor College, the College of Mount St. Vincent, the University of Michigan, Arizona State University, the Universidad Metropolitana, and Elizabeth City State University.

Eight ideas

The eight ideas reflect desires both for more pragmatic advice and deeper senses of connection and social meaning regarding the subject matter. The students suggest:

  • Including a social justice component in STEM education. For example, considering biomedical research in the context of health disparities.
  • Training to help them better explain science to nonscientists, including family members who may be generally supportive but aren’t always familiar with research.
  • Connecting STEM with other disciplines, including the humanities and the arts.
  • Learning sooner than well into graduate school about the career paths that become available with an advanced STEM degree.
  • Gaining guidance for achieving work-life balance. Older students may need this for childcare, but even undergraduates may need it because they maybe helping to raise siblings or supporting other family members.
  • Reconsidering evaluation metrics that fail to account for the diversity or that reflect a misunderstanding of cultural differences.
  • Ensuring access to “invested mentors,” who show a genuine interest in their careers.
  • Creating more opportunities for ancillary training, including parallel graduate degree programs, that allow for studies to evolve with changing or broadening interests.

Many of the themes students voiced are not unique to their URM status, Campbell acknowledges, but he says he was struck that students harbored some of the concerns—including a need for work-life balance or career path advice—so early in their academic careers.

Double the students

Campbell and his coauthors plan to convene another retreat next year with 100 students to expand upon the themes in the paper, for instance to see if they hold up with a different and larger group. Campbell also hopes to learn from students at different stages in their academic or professional career why they’ve made the choices they have.

The data, stories, and ideas he gathers can then be applied to shoring up that incomplete proverbial chemistry formula for successfully engaging URM students in STEM fields.

In addition to Campbell, the paper’s other authors are Rachel Skvirsky of UMass–Boston; Henry Wortis of Tufts; Sheila Thomas and Ichiro Kawachi of Harvard; and Christine Hohmann of Morgan State.

The National Institutes of Health funded the research, which appears in CBE-Life Sciences Education.

Source: Brown University